Cursive Writing: Its Origins And Development

Cursive writing, also known as script or longhand, refers to the flowing, connected style of handwriting in which letters are formed without lifting the writing instrument from the page. The purpose of cursive writing was to create a faster, more efficient way to write by hand. Instead of printing each individual letter, cursive connects letters together in a smooth, unbroken stream. According to the article “The Twisted History of Cursive Writing” on WordGenius, cursive developed as early as the 7th century BC among Roman scribes writing Latin. Over centuries, different styles of cursive emerged and rules were standardized as the writing method spread. Today, cursive is less commonly taught in schools, but it remains useful for taking notes quickly by hand or signing documents.

Origins of Cursive in Ancient Times

The origins of cursive writing can be traced back to ancient civilizations like Egypt, Greece, and Rome where it was used for everyday writing and record keeping. Ancient Egyptian scribes developed a form of cursive writing called hieratic script around 3000 BCE which was a less formal version of hieroglyphs used for religious texts and monuments. Hieratic script was written with reed brushes on papyrus and allowed scribes to write quickly. In ancient Greece, a cursive script called epichoric alphabets emerged around 800 BCE as a simplified version of the Phoenician alphabet. These alphabetical letters were written with a pointed pen on papyrus scrolls.

Ancient Romans similarly developed cursive writing called minuscule cursive or new Roman cursive around the 1st century CE. As the Roman Empire expanded, this efficient cursive script was used across Europe for correspondence, record keeping, and other daily uses. It was typically written with a reed pen on papyrus or wax tablets. Cursive writing allowed ancient scribes and writers to record information and communicate more quickly than formal scripts like hieroglyphs.


Cursive in the Middle Ages

Cursive writing evolved significantly during the Middle Ages with the introduction of quill pens, which replaced reed pens. Quills allowed for greater flexibility and control in writing. Monasteries known as scriptoriums began hand-copying manuscripts and biblical texts using a Gothic script style developed by Charlemagne called Carolingian minuscule. This script, based on Roman cursive and uncial scripts, had ascenders and descenders which allowed more words per line. It later developed into blackletter scripts which were used extensively in medieval manuscripts. References:

Standardization in the Renaissance

The Renaissance period from the 14th to 17th centuries was a time of major advancement and standardization for cursive writing. With the spread of literacy, the introduction of the printing press, and the influence of humanism, cursive handwriting began to be systematized and taught in schools.

The invention of the movable-type printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1440 allowed books and writing primers to be mass-produced for the first time. This helped cursive writing to be standardized through examples in print. As books became more available, literacy rates improved across Europe. Education was also emphasized by humanists of the Renaissance as a way to develop the individual. As more children attended school, they were instructed in handwriting using printed copybooks.

National hands of cursive developed during this period as the Renaissance spread northward. Italian cursive, particularly the chancery style developed in the 14th century Papal court, was very influential. This slanted and rapid italic style of cursive led to the development of italic typefaces. In England, Secretary hand was formalized in the 16th century, while in Germany Sütterlin script emerged in the 16th century. Cursive handwriting began to be taught in a standardized way using models from Renaissance printing across Europe.

Cursive in Colonial America

In colonial America, cursive writing was an important part of early education. Children learned script styles like Copperplate and Spencerian handwriting using slates, nibs, and ink wells in school. Proper cursive handwriting instruction was considered an important skill.

Copperplate script, influenced by engraving and calligraphy, was popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Spencerian script, known for its flourishes, was widely taught in American schools in the 19th century. (Anna’s Musings & Writings)

Writing slates and nibs dipped in ink wells were common tools for learning cursive penmanship. Cursive handwriting instruction focused on developing good form and technique. Colonial American cursive styles were very elaborate compared to modern handwriting. (Indian Converts Collection | Study Guide | Colonial American)

Cursive in the 19th Century

In the 19th century, cursive handwriting reached new heights in terms of artistry and prevalence. As business correspondence dramatically increased in volume, a style known as “business penmanship” emerged that emphasized speed and legibility. Copybooks by penmen such as Platt Rogers Spencer taught simplified letterforms that could be written swiftly. Ornate cursive styles also flourished, including the influential Palmer and Zaner-Bloser methods that featured elegant flourishes.

Cursive handwriting became a mark of proper education and refinement during this era. Master penmen elevated handwriting to an artform, using shaded and ornamental scripts to create beautiful specimens. As historian Tamara Plakins Thornton noted, cursive “connoted character, self-mastery, and training; it was an emblem of culture and citizenship.” Teaching cursive became standard in public schools, aimed at molding proper young ladies and gentlemen. Calligraphy and ornamental penmanship were regarded as genteel accomplishments.

Decline of Cursive in the 20th Century

Cursive handwriting started to decline in usage in the 20th century with the rise of the typewriter. With typewriters becoming more prevalent in offices and schools, less emphasis was placed on teaching ornate cursive handwriting styles. According to the Wikipedia article on Cursive, “The decline in cursive handwriting began in the 1980s when computers and keyboards became commonplace and typing took precedence over handwriting instruction.”

As typewriters and eventually computers became ubiquitous, schools started spending less time teaching cursive writing. With the rise of digital communication, a neat and fluid cursive hand was no longer seen as an essential skill. This Medium article notes that “The decline in cursive handwriting began in the 1980s when computers and keyboards became commonplace and typing took precedence over handwriting instruction in schools.”

Some educators and parents have argued against teaching cursive in schools as it is seen as an outdated skill. They contend that with most communication happening digitally, spending classroom instruction time on cursive handwriting is a waste. Resources are better utilized on developing key digital literacy skills. However, others argue that cursive still has value for brain development and reading comprehension.

Cursive Today

In recent years, cursive writing has declined in popularity and usage. Many schools in the United States have removed cursive writing from their core curriculums. According to a Today article, as of 2013, 45 states no longer required elementary schools to teach cursive writing as a result of the adoption of Common Core standards. Some argued this was a mistake, as learning cursive provided cognitive benefits to developing minds. Proponents of keeping cursive instruction cited studies showing cursive improved fine motor skills, spelling, and composition quality in young children.

While cursive may no longer be a core part of most school curriculums, some research indicates there are still benefits to learning and using cursive. A 2022 study found that cursive writing engaged more sections of a child’s brain compared to printing letters. Areas activated included those involved with thinking, movement control, and working memory. The researchers concluded learning cursive was important for normal neurological development.

Despite its waning popularity, cursive maintains relevance today through its role in signatures and handwritten notes. Many also view cursive writing as an artform. Cursive fonts remain popular in graphic design. Handwriting recognition software can transcribe both print and cursive writing into digital text. While the future role of cursive writing in education remains unclear, its cultural legacy seems likely to persist.

The Future of Cursive

The future of cursive writing has been debated as schools shift to emphasize digital literacy over handwriting. While many schools have opted to remove cursive writing from their core curriculums, there remains disagreement about whether this is the right decision.

Some argue that cursive is an outdated and unnecessary skill in the digital age. Proponents of this view point out that most daily writing is now done on computers and smartphones, rather than by hand. They argue that class time is better utilized focusing on typography and digital literacy skills that students will more frequently use (Connections: What’s the future of cursive writing in schools?).

However, others contend that cursive still has value and provides benefits that digital writing does not. Supporters argue that cursive engages different parts of the brain, develops fine motor skills, and conveys cultural heritage. Some see cursive as an art form that should be preserved, much like calligraphy. They argue that students should at least have the option to learn cursive if desired, even if it is not a core requirement (Cursive Writing: Preserving an Art Form for the Future).

While the debate continues, some viewpoints suggest finding a middle ground. Rather than mandate or abandon cursive entirely, schools could teach it optionally to maintain its cultural legacy. This balanced approach would equip students with both digital and handwriting skills, allowing cursive to evolve and adapt to the modern world rather than disappear (What’s The Future Of Cursive Writing?).


In summary, we have traced the origins of cursive writing from ancient times through the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and up to modern times. Though the specific style has evolved over the centuries, cursive’s fundamental fluid, connected lettering remains a hallmark of handwritten script around the world. Some key developments include the standardization of cursive in the Renaissance and its teaching in American schools in the 19th century. While cursive has declined somewhat in the digital age, it still holds an important place culturally and practically.

Cursive has a rich history and enduring cultural legacy. Mastering cursive allows us to understand historical documents and connect with the past in a tangible way. It also facilitates quicker and more natural handwriting for many. Though technology provides alternatives today, cursive writing remains a core part of literacy and education. Understanding cursive helps preserve our cultural heritage.

Moving forward, cursive is likely to persist even as technology advances. The unique benefits and inherent value of handwriting ensure cursive will have a place in our digital future. Though the style may evolve, cursive endures as a link to history and an art form that engages mind, body, and spirit in a distinctly human way.

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